The fundamental right of students to express and discuss political opinions has been stifled on Malaysian university campuses for five decades, human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights said in a report Wednesday.
The group called on Malaysia’s new government to amend laws limiting and penalizing student activism, some of which were strengthened during Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s earlier tenure as head of government and minister of education.
“Universities are inherently political places, and when students are free, they’re engines of innovation and critical thinking,” Fortify Rights CEO Matthew Smith said in a statement.
“A new day is dawning in Malaysia, and the new government has an historic opportunity to end these needless restrictions once and for all.”
The report highlights a series of recent cases including two tied to protests against former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s links to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.
In October 2016, the prime minister’s special affairs department held a “1MDB Townhall” at the University of Malaya where students were given “merit marks” for attendance, in one incident described in the report.
At the event, a group of students asked a government speaker to identify Malaysian Official 1 (MO1), who figures prominently in U.S. Department of Justice lawsuits seeking to recover more than U.S. $1 billion (3.9 billion ringgit) in assets allegedly paid for with stolen 1MDB money.
Near the end of the townhall, four students held up signs asking for answers about 1MDB.
“I stood up and shouted Siapa MO1? Siapa MO1? [Who is MO1? Who is MO1?],” student Li Yang told Fortify Rights, adding that officials tore their signs and urged the protesters to sit down.
“They even pulled my shirt and pants to force me to sit down. Our friend Ching Siew’s phone was also snatched by them, and she was told to delete the photos or video taken when we raised our placards,” Li Yang was quoted as saying.
Other students were charged for participating in an off-campus rally on Aug. 27, 2016 calling for the arrest of MO1. Malaysia’s high court ruled against the students in 2017, saying university disciplinary action including suspensions and fines “was justified based on the view that the students’ participation in the rally brought disrepute to the university.”
‘No politics on campus’
During campaigning ahead of the May 9 general election, Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition promised to amend the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (AUKU), which places strict rules on student activities on and off-campus and provides punishment for violations.
Amendments further tightening control on student activity in 1975, 1983 and 1996 occurred during Mahathir’s earlier tenure as minister of education and prime minister.
The most recent amendment in 2012 expanded students’ freedoms with the condition of “No politics on campus,” Fortify Rights said.
“The Government of Malaysia should amend AUKU without delay and unlock the potential of Malaysian universities to contribute fully to the political life of the country,” it said.
It also called on universities to drop proceedings against university students facing disciplinary action for “exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”